Building Safe Relationships 5. 4. 2

Author: Yoana Filipic

Keywords: safe relationships, boundaries, maintaining boundaries

Extending beyond education building safe relationships has been a topic of intense theoretical and empirical interest within teaching and counselling. The collaborative relationship between facilitator and service user in the teaching setting is definitely a predictor of programme outcomes. This research area raises the question of why sport psychology researchers have not considered examining the “we” of the relationship, in addition to the two separate “I”s or the two separate individuals in the dyad relationship.

The basis for the professional relationship is the respect for the dignity, worth and rights of the client. Facilitators demonstrate respect when they maintain “appropriate boundaries and ensure their relationships are always for the benefit of the persons with disability. Another important characteristic of the relationship is trust. Therefore it is the belief that the facilitators possess the knowledge and skills required for particular programme, that they will keep confidentiality if shared a personal experience. Boundaries are a very important part of the relationship as an appropriate emotional and physical distance is required in order to stay objective and professional while teaching service users. This is also related to the imbalance of power and facilitator must remain mindful of the goal of the relationship in order to prevent abuse. What is needed is the sense of closeness and empathy that is needed to understand and react adequately when a person with disability is anxious and experiencing distress (Papouli, 2014; Reamer, 2003).

A sample list of tips to create a safe relationship:

  1. Honour each member’s style of interaction
  2. Invite users to share experience and thoughts with regards to the program
  3. Show gratefulness when listened to and respected
  4. Invite families of other professionals to participate in special events
  5. Create time when you see a user in distress and speak to him/her
  6. Respect individual cultural and familial differences

Professional boundaries are a key component of any professional ethics. Not all issues related to these boundaries are necessarily unethical, but many of them are (Reamer, 2003). Factors such as emotional involvement with a service user, a desire to religiously indoctrinate him or her, potential financial gain, and a desire to exploit the user in other ways can sometimes lead to crossing these boundaries in an unethical manner (Papouli, 2014; Reamer, 2003).

This means that maintaining professional boundaries can sometimes mean balancing personal and professional codes of ethics (Reamer, 2003).

Bowler and Nash’s (2014) training framework includes discussions on the differences between two types of relationship – professional and personal. In terms of behaviour they set few important categories - remuneration, purpose of the relationship, balance of power in the relationship, and responsibility for the relationship. These categories are very different considering their implication in professional and personal relationship. With regards to behaviour, professional relationships are regulated by professional standards and codes of ethics, on the other hand personal relationships are guided by personal beliefs and values. In personal relationships, no remuneration is required, whereas in professional relationships the facilitator is paid for providing education to the client. There is an employment contract that states the terms for this payment.

We have provided you with a sample scenario so that this could be useful for helping facilitators understand how to differentiate between the two types of relationships in real-world situations, and how they could benefit from doing so in an effective manner.

Situation: You are a facilitator of sports activities working in a centre for rehabilitation of persons with acquired brain injury. A person with a traumatic injury was admitted a month ago and you have become particularly attached to him while spending time on the playground. His family is distant and not particularly interested in his success in sports. On his win at a competition you buy him a present costing 30€ and make a cake. He is excited. You feel satisfied.
Should you do this, if so why, if not why?

Answer: In your excitement to do something special for the person with an injury, you independently singled out an individual client. You did not carefully consider the broader meaning of giving a gift to this person. As a result, another client in the physical activity group may have felt excluded. Also the giving of a gift can be seen as an attempt by you to create a special, personal relationship beyond the boundaries of the professional relationship. The reaction of the person may create an element of attachment and hope for friendship and socializing outside the centre.

Smith et al (1997) have provided us with a sample list of warning signs for facilitators that their behaviour has crossed the boundaries of a professional relationship (Smith et al 1997). The list is not exhaustive but it gives a view of some common situations when our relationship with a user has become confused:

  • Frequently thinking of the user when away from work
  • Frequently planning other users’ activities around that user’s needs
  • Seeking social contact with or spending free time with the client
  • Sharing personal information or work concerns with the client that can cause user see you as friend, not as professional any more
  • Feeling so strongly about the client’s goals that colleagues’ comments or the client’s or their family’s wishes are disregarded
  • Hiding aspects of the relationship with the client from others
  • More physical touching than is appropriate or required for the situation
  • Romantic or sexual thoughts about the client


Bowler, M. & Nash, P. (2014). Professional Boundaries in Learning Disability Care. Nursing Times, 110, 12-15.

Papouli, E. (2014). The Development of Professional Social Work Values and Ethics in the Workplace: A Critical Incident Analysis from the Students’ Perspective. Retrieved from on 29.6.2018

Reamer, F. (2003). Boundary Issues in Social Work: Managing Dual Relationships. Social Work, 48 (1). 121-133.

Smith, L.L., Taylor, B.B., Keys, A.T. & Gornto, S.B. (1997). Nurse-patient boundaries: Crossing the line. American Journal of Nursing, 97 (12), 26-32.